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Adults Say the Funniest Things

Monday night at VSLive! (I was speaking at the accompanying Software Architecture Summit), I went out to dinner in San Francisco's Chinatown with a former colleague and longtime friend who for the purposes of this missive will remain nameless. It was an early night because, as my friend explained, he wanted to log onto Disney's Toontown Online in order to engage with his friends.

Now, an explanation is in order. Disney Toontown is a children-oriented adventure game and chat facility where visitors take on a persona from a list provided by Disney, and interact with one another using a limited number of words and statements provided by Disney. Persona team together to accomplish goals within the game that can't be accomplished individually. It's all very child-friendly and not at all like many open or topical chat rooms, or multiplayer adventure games, on the Internet in general.

Well, I come to find out that parents sign up their children for Toontown accounts, then in the course of ensuring the appropriateness of their interactions become hooked themselves. They acquire a persona, and find other parents to team with and chat with. That's the key point here. My friend is not a pedophile, but a perfectly normal family man, and I would imagine that most other adult participants are similar upstanding citizens.

To some extent, it is the challenge that is interesting. There are apparently a limited number of approved phrases available, so identifying other parents and establishing meaningful communications can be a difficult puzzle. The phrases available are child-oriented and patently innocuous, so they make use of double-entendres, complex combinations of phrases, and other techniques. And there are other ways of communicating, though actions, for example. And if you can learn another persona's secret code, you can communicate with them in free text.

But there's more than just the challenge. It's about connecting with other people in a safe environment, something that's all too difficult to find on the Internet today. My friend claims to have spent hundreds of hours finding other adults, interacting with them, and teaming together to play the game.

There are two lessons here for software developers. First, if you build software that is robust and interesting to others, you can find a much larger audience than you would have anticipated. Did Disney really believe that its children's interactive adventure game would be popular with adults? I doubt it, but the company created software that crossed a wide age and experience gap.

Second, even with the march of technology that lessens our dependence on our friends and neighbors, people still have a need to interact socially. And software offers the potential for connections that weren't possible even a few years ago. Even at the simplest level, e-mail and instant messaging let me stay in close touch with distant friends that I would have lost touch with years earlier had I had to depend on my letter-writing skills. And technology has also enabled me to make friends that I could never have had earlier in my life.

In our own software architecture and development practices, remembering these lessons will help us build software that not only meets requirements, but also produces willing and enthusiastic users. It doesn't have to be a game, but it does have to be engaging. And if it can provide a gateway to other users so that experiences can be shared, you might have the makings of a classic.

Posted by Peter Varhol on 02/13/2005 at 1:15 PM

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